The Watery World of Exmouth

Somewhere along the 17-hour journey from Broome to Exmouth, the season pattern changed from wet-dry to Summer-Winter. In Broome and Darwin, being in the middle of the dry season meant temperatures in the low to mid 30s and relatively low humidity, but in Exmouth – still technically in the tropics – the winter season meant it was suddenly 10-15 degrees cooler and rainy. Had I known, I might have stayed in Broome for a couple more days…

The overwhelming majority of visitors to the Exmouth come to see the Ningaloo Reef, which stretches 160 miles along the western length of the North West Cape peninsula, a twenty minute drive from the town. People come for snorkelling, scuba diving, and at this time of year boat trips to swim with whale sharks. People don’t hang around in the town unless they’re forced to by, say, inclement weather, so there’s not much touristy development in the town; a couple of surfer clothing shops, a single cafe, two supermarkets and a few pricey restaurants is about all there is in the town ‘centre’, as well as a scattering of shops to book reef excursions. It reminded me in that way of Lake Louise in the Canadian Rockies, where I lived and worked a few years ago. The village of Lake Louise is pretty nondescript; people come to see either the lake or the ski hill depending on the season, and then they move swiftly on to Banff, a more charming place to wander around, with lots of amenities and eateries. Also, although Exmouth has a much more substantial static population than Lake Louise, the workforce is largely driven by transient workers, in this case diving professionals who work for the whale shark and scuba diving companies. The similarity between this group and Lake Louise’s hospitality and ski bum population was highlighted on the Friday night a week after I arrived, when the bar next to the hostel had its weekly party night, and all of the dive boat staff came out to play. Just like in Lake Louise, the local economy can’t support a nightlife scene as such, but there are enough young working people to support a weekly dance night in the otherwise deserted and low-key hotel bar. Very nostalgic.

Although it’s on the opposite side of the peninsula to the Ningaloo Reef, Exmouth does have a beach, known unimaginatively as Town Beach, which I walked out to see on my first day. It’s not particularly well-regarded compared to the fine sand and clear water further around the coast, but it was what I think of as a ‘proper’ beach; brown, gritty sand scattered with a heavy dusting of pebbles and sharp shells, a strong smell of seaweed and a breeze that whips the sand and grass up from the dunes right into your face. After the hot sun and immaculate white sand of Cable Beach, it made quite a refreshing change, and walking on to the small harbour I had a good nose around the fishing and sailing boats.

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Mandu Mandu Gorge

It’s useful and usual to have a car here, because the main land-based event is to visit the Cape Range National Park on a drive up and around the peninsula. Luckily I was able to catch a ride with some people I met at the hostel and we went for a drive through the showers to have a look. It’s pretty amazing the effect the weather has on the landscape; on a hot sunny day the undulating scrubland of the bush looks parched and sandy, but with a little rain and cloud it is suddenly transformed to a green but desolate place. It reminded me so much of the North York Moors, I half expected to see Kate Bush dancing around in a leotard. Dodging the showers, we made a brief, windswept stop at the Vlamingh Head Lighthouse, before going for a short but energetic walk around Mandu Mandu Gorge, a pebbly dry river valley surrounded by steep green and orange slopes. We then headed to the popular snorkelling spot of Turquoise Bay, which on that grey, windy day was all but deserted, and had a rather pessimistic and ill-advised go at snorkelling in the rough swell. After quickly giving up on that idea I had a bit of time to look at the amazing colours of the landscape – the turquoise shallows then the deep aquamarine of the water over the reef, blending into the ominous dark purple of the clouds – before the heavens opened and the rain started.

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SS MIldura Wreck

This rain continued all afternoon, and for two more full days, during which my scuba dive trip was cancelled and there was very little to do except hang around the hostel and wait for the weather to improve. But eventually the worst of the weather passed and my temporary travelling buddy Cat and I hired a car and went for a drive, and although we followed almost exactly the same route as I had done a few days before (there’s pretty much only one direction to go for a drive from Exmouth), a bit of sunshine changed everything. We stopped by a viewpoint for the wreck of SS Mildura, a cattle ship sank off the tip of the North West Cape in 1907, which is juuuust about visible from the shore, and had a second, less windswept visit to the Vlamingh Head Lighthouse.

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Vlamingh Head Lighthouse

The views over the land and the sea were lovely, not to mention the imposing figure of the pylons of Harold E Holt Naval Base. The site was leased and developed by the US Government as a communications base at the height of the cold war in the mid 1960’s, and the town of Exmouth was established 6km away at the same time to service the base. The naval base has the distinction of housing the highest freestanding structure in Australia in the form of the central mast, as well as being named after Harold Holt, a previous Prime Minister of Australia, whose premiership came to an abrupt end in 1967 when he went for a swim in Port Phillip Bay in Victoria and was never seen again. After a lunchtime picnic stop at a packed Turquoise Bay, we headed on for a walk along the Yardie Creek Gorge, the only permanent river on the North West Cape. It was very pretty and enjoyable, slightly scrambly walking, and we even spotted a few tiny rock wallabies scurrying around on the cliff.

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Yardie Creek Gorge

As the weather improved, so did the prospects of my being able to do what I came here for; to get out on the water and see some wildlife. The most popular excursion from Exmouth at this time of year is to take a boat trip to spot and snorkel with whale sharks, the biggest and most docile species of shark. Unfortunately it’s also the most expensive excursion on offer and as awesome an experience as I’m sure it is, I couldn’t justify the $400 price tag. Instead I spent an afternoon sea kayaking along the coast, spotting turtles coming up to the surface for air, pelicans grazing the water, and looking at the swampy mangroves growing along the shore.

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A break from kayaking

But the main event for me was my scuba diving day. I had been hoping to do some more scuba diving since I did my Open Water course in Thailand, but I when it came to getting in the water I was really quite nervous. I hadn’t dived in five months, I’d never dived with anything less than one-on-one supervision, and I was suddenly hit by the knowledge that I was very inexperienced and didn’t know what I was doing. As I got into the water the feeling got more intense as the current and the swell were much stronger than anything I’d experienced in the still waters of Thailand. Hanging onto the mooring line as the rest of my group started to descend, I decided in a hyperventilating panic that I couldn’t go through with it, turning and explaining to the group behind me that I needed to get back onto the boat. Luckily however they helped to calm me down, reminding me that the surface is the worst part of a dive, and when my guide noticed I was missing and came back up to find me, he was very calming and kept a good eye on me as we began the descent. As soon as I got away from the waves of the surface I felt much better and had a fabulous dive. On this and the following dive we saw a couple of friendly sea snakes, a huge stingray floating overhead, a big reef shark scouring the bottom, as well as some lovely corals and lots of pretty little fishies.

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The Ningaloo Reef

After finishing the dives and returning to the hostel, it was sunny and warm enough to sunbathe by the pool, and I spent a while picking the brains of diving instructor Keenan. It was really good to be diving again, great to learn from the pros and improve my skills, and quite elating to have conquered my fear and panic and to have not given up.

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Scuba diving
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Relaxing in Broome

Broome is a small town perched on the Dampier Peninsula in the far north of Western Australia, about as far away from the state capitals as it is possible to be. The town developed around the pearling trade, and because of this is one of oldest multicultural towns in Australia, as Japanese, Chinese and Malay divers came to work on the pearling ships from the mid 19th Century onwards. While pearl farms are still big business in the region, the town now lives on tourism, attracting a primarily domestic market for some Australian sun in the winter months.

The town centre is made up of two streets lined with cafés, high end gift shops, galleries and pearl shops. Also on the main street is the Sun Cinema, where I went one evening to see Finding Dory (to get me in the marine life mood for my next destination, the Ningaloo Reef). The oldest operating outdoor cinema in the world, it opened in 1916 and has rows of deckchairs facing the big screen, only slightly more comfortable than normal cinema seats. As the trailers started we realised that we were sitting right under the airport flightpath, and the thundering of aeroplanes passing over our heads every half an hour  added a certain drama to the experience.

It is a sprawling, spread out kind of town which seems to expect everyone to have their own transport, and which makes it feel bigger than its 16,000 people. There are several attractions spread out along to beachfront (well, mudflats-front) side of the town, one of which is the Broome Museum. Located in the former Customs House and run by the local history society, it offers mini exhibitions on all kinds of things, from the Second World War to sailmaking and ropes, from the Australian equivalent of the Women’s Institute to an impressive but random collection of sea shells. The main event though is a display about Broome’s early pearl industry, which was really interesting although it made me feel a bit funny reading about early divers, knowing what I now do about underwater atmospheric pressure and decompression sickness.

While the beach on the town side of the peninsula is all mudflats and marshland, the western side has Cable Beach, a lovely stretch of white sandy beach famous for sunsets and camel rides. A fifteen minute bus ride from Broome proper, it’s a mini resort town, with its own hostel, bar, and a whole range of hotels, centred around the popular life-guard covered section of beach. From there I followed a walking trail that took me south through the bush parallel to the beach towards the outcrop of Gantheame Point. It wasn’t really walking weather – about 32 degrees – and as there weren’t many people around who thought that walking in the heat was a good idea, the trail was mostly deserted. It was nice, fairly sheltered walking, with lots of birds around. The bushes rustled ominously every so often, and in some spots the sandy path was covered in the unmistakeable curve of snake tracks, but I didn’t come across anything that looks like it wanted to kill me, much to my disappointment.

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Trail near Cable Beach

After a few kilometres I climbed a metal staircase up to the top of the sand dunes and dropped down onto the beach and walked along the shore. Only a short distance away from the busy swimming beach, this section of beach was almost completely empty, with a few sailing boats moored a little way out. It reminded me a little of the beach at Khok Kloi in Thailand, where I did my volunteer teaching a few months ago; quiet and serene, covered with little crabs, but with big sand dunes instead of fancy houses.

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Gantheaume Point

Coming closer to Gantheame Point the dunes turned to cliffs and I had a bit of an adventure clambering over orange rocks trying to get up to the road, and reached the carpark and information board covered in sweat and dust. Gantheame Point is home to a lighthouse and a biological research centre, as well as some fossilised dinosaur footprints. Unfortunately they can only be seen every few weeks when low tide is particularly low, so I wasn’t able to see them, but I had a nice time walking around looking at the piles of bright orange rock on the headland, all flat and flakey-looking like slate.

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Gantheaume Point

Heading back to Cable Beach, I took my shoes off and walked along the edge of the water, dodging all the washed up jellyfish half buried in the sand like gigantic globs of pinky phlegm. Arriving at the kiosk near the swimming beach, exhausted and dehydrated, I treated myself to an ice cream, a cold drink and a well earned rest.

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Cable Beach

The main event on Cable Beach though is the sunset, marketed as the best in Australia. The day before my walk, I had spent the afternoon relaxing on the beach and stayed to see whether the sunset would compare with the many, many sunsets I’ve seen on my travels. I got a nice quiet spot on some rocks a little way away from the main beach, which turned out to be right next to the 4X4 track onto the beach. I haven’t seen it anywhere else, but in Australia it’s apparently a very popular thing to drive right onto the beach to enjoy the sea and sand without getting wet or sandy and especially, as it turns out, to watch the sunset. Cars and motorbikes turned up in droves coming onto the beach next to where I was sitting and driving around the headland to the special beach just for cars. The sunset itself was ok, even if I was sitting on Broome’s own Piccadilly Circus, although I found myself spending more time looking at the couple a little way in front of me, posing for artsy-wistful photos of each other gazing towards the sunset. As soon as the sun disappeared the cars started driving past me again in the opposite direction, but soon after that, dozens of camels came across the sand being led towards their farm, fresh from the sunset camel rides that Cable Beach is known for.

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Camels at sunset

I had been half intending to stay in Broome for a while and find some work, but after a few days’ relaxation I decided to move on. I was still in holiday mode and couldn’t quite summon the motivation to look for a job, and as nice as Broome is for a few days of sunshine, I didn’t love it enough to stay for much longer. And besides, I’d seen lots of adverts for diving and snorkelling further along the coast, which had left me impatient to get there as soon as possible. So after four days in Broome, I got the overnight bus to Exmouth, WA.

Roadtrip: The Kimberley

The Kimberley is the northernmost region of Western Australia, tucked between the Indian Ocean and the Northern Territory. It is rugged and harsh, and very sparsely populated with only a handful of towns spread over an area slightly smaller than Sweden, but it also contains some impressive scenery, National Parks and even a lake. This lake, Lake Argyle, was our first stop in Western Australia and our first detour as we left the highway for a while to climb gently up through the red rocks, stopping at the Lake Argyle Resort, perched in a pretty spot overlooking the lake. There are several ways to ‘experience’ the lake, from helicopter rides to taking a dip in the infinity pool, but we couldn’t find a way to walk down the steep bush-covered slope to actually get down to see the water in person, so after enjoying the view for a bit we headed on back to the highway to the town of Kununurra.

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Lake Argyle

I should stress at this point that although ‘highway’ is technically the right word, the Victoria Highway, which runs from Katherine to just past Kununurra, and the Great Northern Highway, which goes from there to just beyond Port Hedland, are not what I would think of as highways. They are mostly single lane roads with a hard shoulder of hard orange dust, and the occasional two-lane overtaking section. They are well-maintained though and very easy to drive, and wide enough for any campervan – they’d have to be to accommodate the road trains, huge trucks pulling two, three or even more trailer loads. They’re pretty intimidating and can throw you off guard when one comes blaring towards you while you’re enjoying the peace and quiet of the empty road.

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The highway

Not that the road is that empty really; the Kimberley is a popular location for Grey Nomads and other campervan enthusiasts, and there are all manner of 4x4s, minivans and caravans on the road – not enough to make it a ‘busy’ road but enough that you rarely go more than a few minutes without seeing another vehicle. The question then is whether the drivers of the cars passing in the other direction are nice people or not, i.e. whether they return the ‘driver’s wave’, as you lift your hand marginally from the steering wheel to acknowledge their presence, and to give your hand something to do. This is what passes the time on these roads…

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The road

After making a lunch stop in Kununurra, a pleasant town that was bigger than I expected and surprisingly busy, we carried on driving through the afternoon until we reached our stop for the night on the edge of the Bungle Bungle National Park. Sadly we didn’t have time to visit the Bungle Bungles (or Purnululu) themselves, a rock formation comprising collection of huge stratified beehive-shaped lumps, as it takes a whole day to visit them, so we had to be content with staying in the caravan park on the edge of the National Park. It was fantastically remote and wild, with no lighting and few cooking facilities; the toilet and shower blocks were open-topped basic cubicles of corrugated metal, open to the sky. The stars were awesome.

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Sunset at the Bungle Bungle Caravan Park

The third day of the road trip started a little later, as we had been making good time, and we spent the day driving through the flat plains towards Derby, passing through the towns of Hall’s Creek and Fitzroy Crossing. These were the kind of strange, slightly creepy places that I had been expecting, with quite a lot of housing but very few businesses or obvious employment sources. It makes me wonder what the people here actually do, as there’s very little tourism in the towns themselves and there obviously aren’t any cities or bigger towns nearby to commute to. Apart from a supermarket and a primary school, and one or two other bits and pieces, I couldn’t see much that would actually support the population. Fitzroy Crossing particularly had an intensely quiet, ghost town feel about it; I could barely imagine living there, let alone growing up there.

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More road

That evening we arrived in Derby (to rhyme with Furby), a decent sized town by the sea. Walking along the tidal mudflats to the wharf it felt like weeks since I’d been near the sea, and I had to remind myself that it had only been three days since I had watched the sunset at the Mindil Beach Market in Darwin. Driving through the bush had had that effect I think, seeing nothing but dust and rock and bush almost makes you forget you were ever near the sea. I can easily imagine how it sent some of the early pioneers into insanity, even before you take dehydration and hunger into account. Back at the caravan park we were treated to a free concert from an Irish guy who has lived in Australia for many years. He serenaded the Grey Nomad audience with his songs (complete with backing track) about the beauty of nature and how the sun shines in the children’s faces, with song titles like ‘Kununurra Man’ and ’90k’s from Darwin’. It was like a cross between an old people’s home and Butlin’s.

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Derby Wharf

The town of Derby is built on a spit of land surrounded on three sides by reedy mudflats and then the sea. As such the town centre stops abruptly on these sides giving way to a vast flat space and lots of sky. It’s really very pretty and we spent the next morning looking around. For a small town it has an interesting history and care has been taken to preserve some of its historical features. This includes the old gaol, a ramshackle, open-sided tin hut which housed aboriginal prisoners in terrible conditions from 1906 until 1975. We also visited the Prison Tree on the edge of town, so called because it was a stopping point for aboriginal prisoners who were being brought to Derby for punishment or forced labour from more rural areas. The tree is a Boab tree, which have important spiritual significance in Aboriginal culture, and they are pretty cool trees. The species dates back 170 million years, while some individual trees are known to be over 1000 years old, and they look very distinctive. The trunks grow outwards, rather than upwards, becoming bulbous and swollen as they get older, but the branches remain relatively small. The tree is resistant to fire and as it grows the trunk becomes hollow inside. Like so many Australian plants and animals, they look a bit ‘not quite right’, like a child’s drawing of a tree, but they’re very nice all the same.

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Prison Boab Tree

Driving into Broome, with its international airport, street lights, and defined parking spaces, was like landing back on Earth after a trip to space. We were back in civilisation, albeit still hundreds of miles from the nearest city, and I was ready for a bit of rest and relaxation.

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The edge of town and a boab tree, Derby

Roadtrip: Darwin to WA Border

I had booked my train tickets a few months earlier in a moment of spontaneity, and it was a few weeks later that I started thinking about what I would do once I got to Darwin. To the west there appeared to be more or less nothing until you get to Perth, to the east is Cairns and the well-worn backpacker route of the east coast. I had heard good things about the east coast, but at the same time it sounded a bit hectic, a bit Gap Yah for me, and I quite wanted to do something different. But as I didn’t want to fly and couldn’t afford one-way car hire, transport through the all but uninhabited north west was looking problematic. I almost resigned myself to splashing out on an Intrepid tour, when I came across the idea of rental relocations.

The layout of the Australian road system lends itself to long-distance road trips, and because of the distances involved, many people will do a point-to-point rather than a round trip. This means there are cars and campervans that a returned in one place that need to somehow get back to their origin, and there are websites, like imoova and coseats, where you can find them. The fees are nominal and companies often reimburse some of your fuel, so the only costs are insurance, living costs, and petrol. The caveat is that you have a limited time frame to return the vehicle, and a mileage limit so you can’t take a roundabout route, and you put down a fairly hefty deposit to encourage you not to go AWOL.

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The campervan

Discovering this when I was still in Melbourne, I booked a two-seater kitted-out campervan to drive from Darwin to Broome, in Western Australia, over four days. I reasoned that I could either go on my own and see how I fared mentally with only myself for company, or if I met anyone on the way heading in that direction I could take them with me and share costs. I wasn’t sure which I option preferred (are you more likely to get murdered a) by a random stranger when you’re driving alone in the middle of nowhere or b) by a secretly psychotic almost-stranger while you’re driving with them in the middle nowhere?), but on the train to Darwin I met Cat, a youth worker from Leeds who was interested in heading in that direction and displayed no psychotic tendencies whatsoever. And so, after a few days in Darwin, we hit the road on my second Australian road trip.

Despite being more than twice the size of France, the Northern Territory has a population of just over 210,000. This is the smallest population of any Australian state or territory, including the tiny ACT (Australian Capital Territory) which is basically just Canberra. Around two thirds of this number live in Darwin, so the rest of the Territory is quite spectacularly empty on a scale that I can’t quite get my head around. For this reason, I was expecting our 1278 mile drive to be quite dull without anything much of interest to look at, and that was partly true. I hadn’t appreciated though how long distance driving changes the way you look at things. After an hour or so of driving through the bush, you find yourself noticing the smallest changes in the landscape, and pointing out things that under other circumstances would not be at all noteworthy. Aren’t the patterns on those rocks cool! Isn’t it weird how these bushes are different from those bushes before! Hey look, another termite mount! Cows! It’s weirdly therapeutic, to start noticing and appreciating the differences from one patch of emptiness to another.

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The route from Darwin took us south at first, following the Stuart Highway alongside the train line back to Katherine, and we stopped at the hot springs for lunch. I’ve had disappointing experiences with hot springs before, like in Banff where it was basically an overcrowded outdoor pool – nice views, but the turquoise tiles and chrome steps detracted from the naturalness a bit – but Katherine was lovely. From the car park you wouldn’t know there was anything there, there’s barely even a sign, but as we walked down the steps into the valley, we found a stream, interspersed with pools and small waterfalls, shaded by tropical leafy trees. It was really nicely done, with enough subtle handrails and sympathetic landscaping to feel natural and very relaxing.

Carrying on into the afternoon, we headed west along the Victoria Highway passing through the (relatively) dramatic Gregory National Park. We stopped for fuel at the Victoria River Roadhouse, a remote, tiny place where the pump isn’t connected to the tills and they trust you to tell them how much you owe. One of the campervan rental conditions is that we were not allowed to drive between dusk and dawn, primarily because kangaroos have a habit of bounding into the road at sunrise and sunset, so we stopped for the night in Timber Creek, a settlement of 200 people centred around a hotel/roadhouse/caravan park on the highway. The creek itself, which runs along one end of the caravan park, is home to crocodiles (the hotel holds a croc feeding session for visitors every couple of days) and the surrounding tree contain the biggest bats I’ve ever seen in my life. Needless to say we picked a camping spot nice and far away from the creek.

Keen to get on, we got up bright and early the next morning, and after a couple of hours arrived at the Western Australian border at around 10:00am. Or at least, 10:00am Northern Territory time, as in the excitement of having to surrender all the fruit and veg we’d bought the previous day, we forgot about the 90 minute time change between the states. We didn’t notice until that evening, and spent the whole day living an hour and a half ahead of everyone else. Should’ve had a lie in.

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Western Australian border