My arrival in Australia was a very happy one! Not only did I find myself in a country where I was excited to be, but it was an english speaking one! I can’t even describe to you the euphoria I felt when I just walked over to a counter and asked how to get to the address of my hostel. I was graciously given directions on how to take the public bus and I walked away elated over the simplicity of it all. A city bus system with a map and a timetable…how like home this was so far!
I arrived at my hostel and was welcomed by a very friendly man named Charlie, the owner of Wickhams Retreat Backpackers hostel. He referred me over to his girlfriend Heidi to get checked in and I found myself on a lower bunk in a small four bunk room. While the thought of staying in a simple hostel was a little shocking after my birthday present to myself in Bali, I was happy to have other people to talk to and get to know.
I was staying in a room with two girls from Leeds and a young man from Ireland. They were all passing through like me, but they were in Perth to find a job for their work visas. In Australia, young people from all over the world come to do a working holiday where they work for a year in Australia. If they do “hard time” on a farm, they can qualify for a second year visa, but most only stay for a year after getting an entry level job serving coffee, waiting tables, or working in various other small shops around the city. Being the old lady that I am after my most recent birthday, I did not qualify for a working visa, so I had to stick to a good old fashioned tourist visa. It suits me fine, but prevents me from gaining any employment while I am here.
So let me give you a little bit (very little!) of the background information on Australia. I plan on spending a good bit of time here, it’s a big country! There are 6 states in Australia and each have their own culture and attractions. I will tell you about them each as I explore them.
I am currently in Western Australia (WA) which is the biggest and least populated state of Australia. Sounds like a strange place to start my journey down under, however, I had a very good reason for being here. The highlight of my trip through WA is something that has been on my bucket list for a while. During the months of April and May there is a very consistent migration of the largest sharks in the world – whale sharks! Very little is known about their habitat and migration patterns, but just off the coast of WA in Exmouth is one place they have been consistently seen for many years. I will tell you more about their conservation and my experience meeting a few of these gentle giants a bit further down the blog.
One thing that is really shaping how I travel and where I go while in Australia is money. Money is a factor throughout any vacation, but here in Australia you have to be very careful or you will quickly find your funds depleted. To give you a few examples, I went out to dinner and got a burger, fries, and a soda. It was $21. I went to the pub with a few new friends and bought a pint of beer. It was $14. Yup, $14 for a pint of beer. So the next time you are paying $4 for a pint somewhere, don’t complain. Aussies like to drink and they are incredibly generous. I met a group of local guys and they did not hesitate to buy rounds of beer. I can only imagine what their tab looked like, but they refused to let me pay for a round myself. It isn’t just when you are out that you have to watch the money, a case of beer at the grocery store is anywhere from $40-60. So it’s a major commitment to drink here. Doesn’t seem to be stopping any locals though!
The money issue does however change how I will be traveling. When a basic hotel room can run you $150, camping is a good alternative. I went to Kmart (yup…they are everywhere) and bought a cheap tent, sleeping bag, and a few other misc things needed for the most basic type of camping. Thinking of all my friends and family with their big RVs makes me a bit envious, but the weather is nice so it hasn’t been bad at all! I met a girl online that wanted to share the cost of a rental car from Perth to Broome and back at about the same time I did and so we met up and hit the road!
After a struggle to get out of town (got lost), we hit the road late in the day. It’s 2300 total kilometers (km) direct to Broome from Perth (but we aren’t taking a direct route) and our first leg of 1500 km had to be done by Tuesday the 8th so we could dive with the whale sharks. Once you leave Perth there is virtually nothing for hundreds of kilometers. You will see an occasional roadhouse, but they are few and far apart.
Camping locations are equally hard to find, but we managed to find decent spots for the first couple of nights. I was struck by the amazing amount of stars once we were out of the cities. I was able to identify the Southern Cross and clearly see the band of the Milky Way across the sky. The Southern Cross is a constellation used for celestial navigation here in the Southern Hemisphere. We use the North Star, but it is only visible north of the equator.
Our first couple of days were spent just driving and camping, but we took some time to explore the Pinnacles in Nambung National Park. The Pinnacles are a strange rock formation near the coast where large monoliths of stone rise out of the red sands. As the wind blows and changes the sandy landscape, the pinnacles change with it. It is estimated that there are around 1000 of these structures, but new stones are appearing daily.
It reminded me a little bit of Goblin Valley in southern Utah. In fact, now that I mentioned it, I have to say that the red sands and desert climate of WA reminds me a lot of Utah. One major difference though…the coast is nearby with some darn beautiful beaches. Most of the camping is near the beaches, so I took many strolls over to see the waves breaking against the shores in the morning hours. You can look both ways down many of the beaches and not see a person or animal anywhere.
It is nice to see beaches that aren’t owned by anyone, unlike in the US. I hadn’t really thought about it before, but one of the guys I met here asked me with astonishment, “Is it really true that most of the beaches in the US are privately owned? Don’t you save any for the public to use?!” This was one rumor about the US that I had to confirm as true (unlike some other really bizarre misconceptions I have heard down here!)
After a few days we arrived in Exmouth. It is a small town primarily focused around tourism. It wasn’t always a tourist town. In fact, it was an American town a mere 50 years ago. What? An American town in Australia? True! Exmouth was officially created as a town in 1967 when the US Navy built $600 million naval communications station and base there complete with a bowling alley, baseball field, and a theater. The barracks have now become a hotel and the base belongs to the Australian government. However, the communications station still exists and it is home to 13 huge radio towers which monitor the movements of US warships in the Indian Ocean and western Pacific. The towers themselves are higher than the Empire State Building!
Another relic from the Navy Base is the Pier. Because of its location in the rich waters near Ningaloo Reef it has become an artificial reef over the last 40 years and home to some of the most diverse marine life on the planet. It has consistently been ranked as one of the best dive spots in the world. So thats where we made our first dive! We saw an incredible array of life from a large manta ray to a moray eel coiled behind a large steel girder. It was a twilight dive so it was pitch black when we got out of the waters. It was my first dive in a while and the first dive for me in Australia, so I came out of the water extra elated to be on this adventure.
Part of my elation came from knowing that the pièce de résistance was the next morning – swimming with whale sharks! We were picked up at 7:30 AM and took a short ride over to the pier to get on a beautifully painted boat. Our morning was spent taking a quick dive on the inner reef, which after the Navy Pier, was fun, but I was so excited about the whale sharks that I couldn’t really get too excited about it. We finally left the inner reef to wait for word from the spotter planes that they had found a whale shark for us to meet!
Before I get to the good stuff you should know a few things about whale sharks. They are the largest fish in the sea (real whales are mammals – not fish) and have been known to grow as large as 40 feet long. They are plankton eaters like whales which is why they are named whale sharks (besides their size!). They have the same filtration system where they open their large mouths to take in water and then flush it through their gills after having taken the food out of it. So don’t worry – they don’t eat people!
Relatively little is known about them because they can dive as deep as 1500 meters (4500 feet) and stay there for long periods of time. Makes them hard to study, but conservation and study efforts are in full effect!
One cool thing they are doing is using tourist photos to help identify and track movements. Their unique spot patterns are like a finger print so all you have to do is send in a picture of the spots behind their head to this tracking company. They use the same algorithms that NASA used to map the stars to create a unique finger print for each whale shark. Once you send your photo in they will tell you if you have spotted a new shark or one they already have in their database. Our guide told us that he had sent one in last year that had been spotted 15 years earlier in the same spot! They are using the database to track their migration patterns and numbers.
Enough Discovery Channel, lets get back to the action! The call came in after about an hour – a juvenile whale shark had been spotted. We zoomed over and were given a barrage of rules to follow once we were in the water. You had to keep a distance of 9 feet from the shark at all times and never swim in front of him or interfere with him in any way.
When we were dropped in the water I poked my mask into the water only to discover that he was coming right at me! I quickly swam to the left and looked for him again. He was coming straight for me again! Swim, swim, swim! I frantically tried to get out of his way and follow the rules for about 15 minutes before the boat popped back over for us to hop on.
Turned out that wasn’t normal. Good thing or I would be dead from exhaustion by the end of the day! He was circling us because he was a curious juvenile. He was the smallest shark they had ever seen – about 15 feet. Not so small in my book. We got another call in a few minutes time so we zoomed over to the next spot and jumped in the water. Again I popped my head under to realize he was coming straight at me, but this one was huge! I would guess he was about 19-20 feet long and was gracefully cruising along. This time after I got out of his way he just stayed in straight line and I was able to swim alongside this gentle giant for about 20 minutes. What a feeling! I felt so humbled and lucky to be seeing this creature and will always relish the memories. We ended up spending about 80 total minutes swimming with the sharks and met 5 different whale sharks that day. Life is good.
We got up the next morning and got on the road early to head to Dampier on the Pilbara region. We stopped at the local tourism office and they referred us over to a caravan park. We pulled in and the park was across the street from the beach. The sun was just setting as we arrived so I was welcomed to this beautiful region by a stunning sunset and we immediately decided that what was supposed to be an overnight stay should be two nights so we would have some time to explore. After going down to the beach we called it a night.
The next morning I took a walk into town and went to the local library where I was given a run down of all of the local history and folklore. One of the coolest stories was about a nomadic dog named Red Dog.
Red Dog was born in 1971 and was abandoned by his owner after having trouble getting him to behave. He soon was adopted by the entire city. When he wanted to go somewhere he would stand in the road and locals would pick him up. If he wanted to sleep someplace comfortable he would scratch at someones door. I won’t tell you the full story because I don’t want to ruin the ending for you. In 2010 the story caught the attention of Hollywood. They auditioned thousands of dogs to find the perfect canine actor and brought in all the crews. It was filmed on location in Dampier and surrounding regions and was released in 2011. I am dying to see it, but it wasn’t widely released since it was an Indie film. If anyone finds it, let me know!
After another breathtaking sunset we went to bed early to get an early start for a long driving day the next day. We made it nearly to Broome before stopping for the night at a 24 hour rest stop. We got there at dusk and were immediately attacked by hordes of mosquitos. We spent the rest of the night huddling in our respective tents. The next morning we woke up early and came out of the tents only to discover they were still there. I threw all of my gear into the car with zero regard to organization or breakfast and hurriedly we got out of dodge. We made the last 150 km drive into Broome and happily got settled into the slightly less buggy area. Slightly less buggy…I still slathered myself in DEET and got about 5 bites. Oh well – small price to pay to spend time in this beautiful region.
After setting up camp we made our way into town to the tourism office and I booked a few tours to get to know the area. That afternoon I found out there was live music at the local brewery and decided that eating out one meal and having a few beers wouldn’t break the bank so I got dropped off down there. After a beer I was approached by another lone soul hanging out there for a chat. We chatted for a few hours and were joined by a few other strays, some from Australia, others from the UK and New Zealand. It turned into a really fun night filled with great conversation and good beer.
I met up with a sightseeing tour the next morning and got the background on Broome. Broome was once the pearling capital of the world, until the mother of pearl industry was nearly wiped out by the invention of the plastic button. Cultured pearl farming from the 1970s onwards has revived the pearl industry here in addition to a booming tourism industry. Besides the rich pearling history, Broome is home to one of the most beautiful beaches in the world – Cable Beach. It is a 22 km stretch of pristine white sand with some of the biggest changes in tides in the world.
At low tide, you can see 120 million year old dinosaur footprints at Gantheaume Point where the red sands meet the blue ocean and white sands. The contrast was incredible to see in the morning light and we ventured into town for a historical talk about the pearling industry.
The room where we were being told the rich history of the shell and pearl industry was full of diving gear from the early 1900s that had actually been in use and has been safely stored in a store house long with the only two remaining Pearling ships called luggers. We got to try on a diving helmet and lead soled boots before making our way home for a few hours.
That evening we had signed up for an “Astro Tour” led by a gentleman by the name of Greg Quicke. When we arrived in the designated area a few kilometers out of town we found a dark pathway lit only by a few garden lights. We made our way over to the area where there were two large telescopes set up and a set of tripod mounted binoculars. Greg started us out by talking about the ideal viewing conditions from this area if Australia. Not only do we have a view of the entire Southern Hemisphere sky, but because we are so close to the equator we can also see a good portion of the Northern Hemisphere.
From the dark of the desolated area you could see more stars than I can recall seeing since my childhood camping trips. We talked about celestial navigation in the southern hemisphere and he showed us many of the major constellations and planets. Once we started looking in the telescopes we were able to see Saturn and it’s rings as well as several star clusters and nebulas. He shared with us how the dark nebulas scattered throughout the Milky Way are believed to make up a Aboriginal god as well. It was highly fascinating and it made braving the hoardes of mosquitos worth every bite. I wish I could share with you all the things I saw, but stars are not the most photogenic objects.
The next morning I had signed up for a aerial tour of the Kimberleys. It is a region in the north part of Western Australia about the size of California, but only has about 38,000 residents. It is very remote and only really accessible by plane or serious four wheel drive (and only during the dry months).
It is some of the most pristine and untouched land in the world. We started our flight by going up the coast along the beautiful beaches to our only stop for the day called Cape Levique. I stopped and grabbed a light breakfast before walking down to the rocky beach and cliffs below. I sat there on the beach and could see down the coast for miles in either direction. I felt like the only person on earth and sat there appreciating the pathway that this area has taken leaving it so virginal after being inhabited for so long. I am jealous of Australia’s land conservation and wish the US could learn to behave accordingly…
We flew over a remarkable phenomenon called the Horizontal Falls. They are a fast-moving tidal flow through two narrow, closely aligned gorges of the McLarty Range, located in Talbot Bay. The direction of the flow reverses with each change of tide. As tides in the Kimberley can reach 10 metres, a peak tide gives rise to a significant difference in the sea level on either side of each gorge. The tides weren’t moving as much as I would hope, but it was still something to see!
We headed back to Broome and took about an hours flight over some of the most barren land I have ever seen. Mile after mile of bushland separated only by natural geography like streams, jettys, and bays. This aerial tour gave me a great idea of the vastness of the Kimberley region and I came away appreciating this beautiful and diverse region of Western Australia.
So now what? So now Valerie and I drive the 3000 km back to Perth over the next few days. We are taking a different route to get back and plan on making a stop in Newman. It is an inland mining town where Valerie lived and has friends. I will keep you posted as I find internet in this internet starved country…
Miss you all!