Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Blog 16 - Outback Days Part 1

Whenever I used to think of Australia it was never Neighbours or Rolf Harris that sprang to mind but miles and miles of wild empty country, searing heat, nasty animals, aboriginals and big sweaty, dusty blokes with stained string vests and cowboy hats, drinking beer in a tin shed in the middle of nowhere. Well touring up the west coast of Australia was all of that.

I was inspired recently by reading Albert Facey's book, 'A Fortunate Life'. This was early 20th century Oz. When people were trying to make farms from the wild bush, build railways, driving cattle 1000 miles. We get 'western', cowboy movies about the US ad nauseam. Somehow Australia got overlooked but the stories were just the same. My dad used to love his 'cowies' so I was kind of brought up on the romanticism of the wild west. Perhaps its that corner of me that will be forever a country boy, but I just fell in love with the wild open spaces of Australia. When you come back to the city it feels claustrophobic, noisy and dirty in comparison. You don't notice these things when you are surrounded by them every day. Its the contrast of the big skies, clean air and peace and quiet of the open country which brings it home.

My intention originally was to arrive in Darwin then trek over to Cairns and work my way down the east coast to Sydney. In Bangkok, I realised that Darwin would be just as hot and sticky as Thailand. Ellie moving down to Perth at that time helped me decide to change direction and go west instead. It was a good choice. Western Australia is so natural and unspoilt compared with the touristy and backpacker infested east coast. When our bus left Geraldton the tour guide remarked that we had just passed the last traffic light for the next 4000km. I knew then it was going to be a good trip.

There were so many good things on this journey I could write a book on it. Its not just the things you see and the places you visit. Its the people you meet, new friends. New stuff to learn about the country and yourself. Writing this now a few weeks later in Sydney; I've been out twice in the last few days with people I met on that trip. In a foreign place where you don't know anyone, its a great thing to be able to spend time with others you instantly have something in common with.

When I was thinking about what excursion to try, it was the visit to the Stromatolites that sold me. This is the nerdy corner, so bear with me. I'd read about these things - colonies of microscopic blue-green algae that live in very salty, shallow water. They build rocky pillars by sticking small bits of sand to themselves and grow slowly, like coral, over thousands of years. The big deal about them is that over 3.5 billion years ago when the world had an atmosphere of carbon dioxide, these things, the first serious life form, single handedly converted that CO2 over the next 2 billion years into the oxygen we have today. Without that no other life on the planet would have been able to evolve. So geeky boy here was jumping up and down with excitement when we rolled up to Shark Bay (what is the difference between a geek and a nerd, still haven't worked that one out). But they are strikingly unimpressive to the uninitiated. So there was massed communal shoulder shrugging from the assembled bus party. To be honest it does just look like another beach with a few rocks. It was this fact and its general remoteness that meant this particular colony wasn't discovered until the early 1960's. But I enjoyed it. You kinda have to let your imagination fill in the gaps when confronted with this sort of stuff. Something the dumbed down, media spoonfed global population is not used to doing these days. Wow, its not very often you get to be nerdy and a grumpy old man in the same paragraph. Two of my favourite pastimes.

I'll just interrupt the flow here to say the weather in Sydney today is most British. Cold, grey, windy and pissing down. Its great. The sun is okay but you can have too much of a good thing. Anglo Saxon blood requires a bit of eclecticism when it comes to the weather. Its quite pleasant to be indoors with a cosy cup of tea and choccy biscuit, listening to the rain battering on the windows. I'm off to visit my Australian cousins tonight and will no doubt be slated for bringing all this pommie weather, in the true aussie tradition of sledging the opposition.

The Shark Bay area was pretty cool. Seeing the dolphins being fed at Monkey Mia was good to be so close to them. But it was the one thing on the trip which felt a bit false. Much better, in the same place, was a guided walk from Capes, a local aboriginal guy. Again this appealed to all that Bush Tucker Man, Crocodile Dundee, Ray Mears stuff I love. He was a great guy. He explained all the things you could eat, not eat or use for medicines from the local flora. Then looking at animal tracks. You could tell if a kangaroo was large or small, what direction it was headed, how old the tracks were, whether it was going fast or slow... brilliant stuff. He talked about respect for the country, even as far as introducing himself to the country as he passed, with his name and where he came from. He explained how they get their names, from the season or time of year they were born, their totem (animal or plant they had special responsibility for)and their skin - a tribal id which they used to avoid intermarriage.

Coral bay was the next destination, a bit further up the coast. I use bit here in the aussie sense, which means about 400km and half a days drive. The distances here are truly mega. You look at a map and think that's not far but in reality it turns out to be like driving from Liverpool to Glasgow. They have a map over here which shows the whole of the UK, Japan and Germany superimposed over Western Australia, with just as much space to spare. Its unreal and very hard for a small islander to take in.

Our stop over for the night was a sheep station on the Tropic of Capricorn called Warroora, where we were to stay in the shearers quarters. We arrived at dusk and this was out first real excursion from civilisation as we know it. We had stayed in hostels so far, where the closest thing to wildlife was the odd cockroach or twenty. It didn't take long for the first scream to rent the still air. A large hairy Huntsman spider had decided it preferred the comfort of one of the girls rooms. Aussie John helped it back into natures quarters. Another scream. This time from the shower block. Same story different spider. Everyone is getting a bit edgy now. I must admit I double checked under the bed before turning in. It was a great place though. I walked out from the buildings a short way and in the darkness you could see distant lightning strikes. Looking up the sky was a mass of stars. The milky way was really clear and evry few minutes a shooting star would blaze across the blackness.

Later, we got a fire going and a couple of young aussie lads came and joined us. They were students up from Perth to help with the shearing due to start the next week. Their job was to muster the sheep on motorbikes (the boys, not the sheep). The Station was 250,000 acres with 14,000 sheep. They had to shear 1000 a day for two weeks solid. This would give the lads enough money to go off snowboarding in Canada. What a great life.

Coral Bay gave us the chance to swim with Manta Rays. Well actually you could choose an activity for the morning at your own expense from glass bottom boat to Kayaking/snorkeling to the Manta Ray trip. Its not everyday you get that kind of an opportunity so it was a no brainer really.

About half a dozen of us set out in a motor boat with Ben and Macca our surf dude guides. To be honest just being out on a boat on the Ningaloo Reef did it for me, the rest was a bonus. They send up a spotter plane to find the rays and direct the boat. When they find one you have to be over the side all together and follow Macca as he tracks the ray. This thing was amazing. About 3m across, just gliding effortlessly along. It even turned over at one point to reveal a silver underside with an assortment of attached fish getting a free feed. The guys were really impressed as they don't do that very often. When we were back in the boat he let it slip that the plane was also there to look out for other things, like a 4m long Tiger Shark that had recently been patrolling the area. Tiger Sharks like turtle (more than scouser I hope) and we were off to see turtles next. How much better could it get. Then to finish the morning they moored up over the reef and let us snorkel for an hour. They feed the fish a little from the boat, so they all come round as soon as the boat stops. Its like jumping into a huge fish tank. All different shapes and sizes of Snappers and other types too numerous to mention, gather round you curiously, on the off chance you have a handful of ants eggs (or whatever they give them).

Exmouth was the next stop or Ex Mouth as the locals pronounce it. This was a base for a couple of days to explore the beaches further north along the Ningaloo. At Drift Beach you could go into the clear turquoise water and just let the current drift you over the reef. The water was warm enough not to need a wet suit. Just your snorkeling gear. I nearly bricked it when a reef shark meandered underneath me. When I regained my composure I was tempted to follow it until I remembered Capes's advice about snakes and other dangerous creatures - 'they go one way, we go other way'.

Sandy Bay, another tribute to the aussie naming convention, was just paradise. I've never seen such a perfect beach. White curving sand, pale crystal water, nobody there. I could have stayed there forever. But in true tour bus tradition you reverie is broken by the cry of 'Back on the bus guys.....'

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