As in Broome, I had a vague intention of finding work in Exmouth in order to fund more diving and generally stretch out my dwindling funds, and this time I got as far as walking around the town looking for adverts on shop windows and notice boards. But, when it came down to it, I couldn’t quite summon the motivation to apply for service industry jobs, and the thought of staying in the town’s friendly but poorly maintained backpackers’ hostel helped me decide to move on south towards Perth. The questions then was how to get there. I had no luck finding another campervan relocation, and although the bus I’d taken down from Broome did continue another seventeen hours to Perth, I wasn’t keen on the idea of another overnight journey in a rattly, funny-smelling coach.
So it was with some relief that I heard about Red Earth Safaris, a small, Perth-based tour company that run eight-day trips from Perth to Exmouth and back again. Although they stopped for the sights and activities on the way up, for slightly less than the cost of a public bus ticket they offered a spot on the day-and-a-half return leg. And to sweeten the deal, food and a night’s accommodation was included, so I signed up online. Having spoken to some people at the hostel who had done the tour and was expecting a similar set-up to the tour I did in Alice Springs; some kind of small bus with 10-15 people, a fairly structured itinerary and an informative guide who would slip into ‘storytelling mode’ when he told the anecdotes he’d told a hundred times before. I was surprised then on the morning we left Exmouth to be met by a guide and just two other punters, in a car. As Nicola the guide explained, all of the other guests had opted to end the tour at Monkey Mia, several hours south of Exmouth, and so with so few people it made sense to carry on in the car rather than the big bus. It wasn’t what I was expecting but it made for a much more comfortable journey, and felt more like an informal road trip than a tour.
We set off after an early breakfast and drove all day, stopping for breaks at the funny little roadhouses along the way. We crossed the Tropic of Capricorn and the 24th Parallel, the border of north-west Australia, and the landscape gradually changed as we made our way south. Green replaced orangey brown, fields replaced bushland, rolling hills replaced flat plains. We stopped for lunch in Carnarvon, in banana-growing country, as as we pushed on we passed fields of wheat, rapeseed and sheep, as well as plenty of wild goats (which apparently are quite a problem given their tendency to eat anything and everything). As we drove Nicola told me about the area and some of the things I would have seen on the journey up, while the two other passengers, a pair of grumpy German teenagers slept in the backseat. Nicola wasn’t a professional tour guide – she and her husband had just bought the company after he had lead groups for the previous owners for the last seven years, while she was an English language teacher and administrator for an ESL college in Perth, and was taking a break to consider a career change – and her unrehearsed storytelling style gave the journey even more of a road trip feel.
Our stop for the night was a hostel in Northampton, a town spread along the main road with 868 residents and three pubs, imaginatively named Top Pub, Middle Pub and Bottom Pub. Our accommodation was a former convent build in 1917, and now a hostel in the style of what I imagine hostels were like about fifty years ago. No light and bright spaces, no backpackers’ drinks deals and promo photos of young people having fun, no reception even. To get in we rang the caretaker Maureen, who came to meet us with a big bunch of keys and showed us around. We were shown the kitchen which didn’t seem to have changed since 1917, the living room with furniture that reminded me of my Granny’s house, and our simple bedrooms. When old buildings are repurposed, especially when they become hostels, the interiors seem to be refurbished to such a degree that they can lose their character, but here there was no chance of that as nothing, from the wallpaper to the furniture to the pictures on the walls, seemed to have been changed. It was quite nice really, and a beautiful building, but very, very cold.
The next morning we set off early again and hit the road, passing by the town of Geraldton, scared some emus crossing the road, and stopped to have a look at one of the area’s ‘leaning trees’, trees that are bent so much by the strong winds that they grow horizontally. We came into Perth through the northern suburbs, which reminded me very much of Milton Keynes right down to the roundabouts. Arriving at lunchtime, Nicola dropped me off at the YHA Hostel in the city centre, and after nearly a month of small towns and deserted bushland, I was back in the hustle and bustle of big city life.