Our Diary Australia - Part 1

G'day from WA

Standing alone at the Immigration line at an airport can be a very lonely affair; you're tired, full of anticipation and just bored with bureaucracy - and one looks around for amusement. This was Perth, WA and no different from any other Immigration line. Christine had gone into the Aussie line - this was her first trip back in 15 years. I was in with the others. We shuffled forward and waited. The ever-changing notices "allowance 2 litres of sprits, 200 cigarettes" giving dire warnings of the consequences of smuggling banned substances - the list was endless. I suddenly did a "double take" - after "guns" and "flick knives" blazoned in red "Electric Fly Swats" would land you in deep do-do! Why, in this land renowned for its flies, are electric fly swats banned? The only conclusion I came to was it must be a Government conspiracy; they are protecting the humble fly and using them as a deterrent. This needed more investigation, I thought!

We were finally reunited and trudged our way through Customs and entered the bright sunlight. It was good to be warm again; the winter in NZ now behind us. We took the city shuttle bus and chatted merrily with a young couple and babe from Canada who were hiring a camper and driving to Broome - also our first major destination, a mere 2,000 km north. (As I will quickly learn, Australia is BIG, very BIG and a 2,000 km long road is just a bundle of string in the desert.) In order to follow them we must first get our transport and "survival" gear.

The bus dropped us off outside a ram-shackled building with flaking paint and cracked panes. The sign above the door said Globe Hotel! We had booked our first nights accommodation at the "Globe". Was this it? we wondered. Christine, hoping for a night of luxury, was down hearted. We tried the door - locked! Peering through the window didn't help, but the Lonely Planet guide did. Wrong address! "Globe Backpackers" was a couple of blocks down, we had been dropped off at the wrong building.

Clean, adequate and air-conditioned is the best description for our first few nights stay. It took us back to our youth hostelling days, where breakfast is not the quiet serene start of the day, but a minor skirmish in the battle of life. But as a base to get ourselves organised it was right in the centre of town and the notice boards were littered with vehicles and equipment for sale. The search commenced. A phone-chip was bought but a trip to the Royal Automobile Club didn't prove as useful as we hoped. The man at the bus ticket office was more use, giving us details of the public transport system, maps, location of car yards and which local newspapers to buy. Armed with this we sat down and commenced our search by phone. Our learning curve was steep. We had not owned a car for four years so were unsure of makes, models, etc. Seeing what other backpackers were using for transport was useful, but a walk along Car Yard Highway was more useful. We loved the honesty of the car salesmen at the car yards and after Day 1 had come to the conclusion that we needed either a Nissan Patrol or Toyota Landcruiser, both chunky 4WDs. But we needed a car to buy a car!

First we had to join in a small slice of Aussie life. Day 2 was Melbourne Cup day. The whole of Australia stops for this horse race. Even in Perth the women were sporting their fancy hats and betting booths had sprung up. On our way to the car hire place we passed an Irish pub and popped in to watch the "Cup" and Aussies at play. It was midday and the place was deserted. By 12.30 it was standing room only on chairs, tables anywhere that had a view of the screen. There were queues at the Tote outside and helpful young guys showing you how to bet! Needless to say our "pick" came well down in the field, but the atmosphere was superb.

Now with a brand new hire car and honed search criteria we again toured the car yards. After a couple of test drives we started negotiation for a 1993 Nissan Patrol diesel with "only" 260,000km on the clock. It was over our budget but looked in good condition. In the end we made an offer but couldn't agree and so we walked away. The evening was lovely and with the hire car we toured the city. Christine had lived in Perth for 14 years so knew her way around. Perth is a large modern city, clean with lots of greenery. The Swan River forms a lovely backdrop and from Kings Park you get a wonderful view overlooking the city. Over dinner we decided that we would give the asking price for the Nissan Patrol that we had seen that afternoon and would phone the car yard first thing. While on the internet to check emails and transfer money there was an email from Tom and Sue McNaughtan. We had met Tom and Sue four years ago and cruised with them in Portugal. They then sailed directly to Australia and had now bought a house in Perth. Aren't cruisers wonderful! An offer of a bed and bath at just the right moment - how great is that?

We went to finalise the purchase of the "truck"; the car yard had just started to service the vehicle and so I had a chance to check her over underneath. To my untrained eye all looked good and the mechanic gave some good comments. The tyres looked good and the mileage low. A real Tonka Toy! What more could a man want…

While the car was being serviced we visited the local K Mart and started to buy camping equipment. By the end of the day we had transport and most of our camping gear - and it was only Day 3. Now we could start our holiday/adventure…

We checked out the next morning and dropped off the hire car. Christine popped into her old office and renewed acquaintances there with Geoff, Sue & David, which was fun and in the afternoon we headed east to Stonevillle, a leafy suburb just verging on bush, where Tom and Sue lived. Unfortunately Sue was out deep in the bush looking for water (a normal Aussie pastime, especially if you are a geologist!). It was really great to catch up with Tom again and on Friday evening Sue returned home unexpectedly for the weekend so we had a lovely reunion - which was interspersed by them dowsing down a nearby bushfire. No huge conflagration - Tom and Sue are volunteer fire fighters and were helping out at a control burn.

By Sunday we had packed "Betty" named after her BT number plate and were keen to hit the road. After lunch we drove to New Norcia, 130 km north, through vast fields of golden wheat and arrived in time to see the parrots roosting in the trees at a basic camp site. New Norcia is a bit of an oddity; this mission town of incongruous gothic architecture was built in the 1840's by the Catholics to convert the aborigines and ended up becoming a school and monastery.

After a quick tour the next day we set off for the next town 500km north. We had just left town and there was a large sign which said "The Outback Starts Here". I'm not sure whether this was a warning or just a bit of marketing! This was my first taste of the outback.

Australia is vast - it's huge and empty; you'll hear this said on numerous occasions during our trip. How is difficult to convey… Just going to the next town is a major expedition in this part of Oz. The 500km to Cue is like driving from Southampton to Newcastle with nothing in between. By nothing I mean just an odd homestead or two, a roadhouse and miles and miles of bush. Red sandy soil covered in low growing shrubs. It is remarkable to think that if you step out of your car and walk 20 meters into the bush, you are likely to be the first human to have stood there! These roads are not well travelled. When you meet another vehicle approaching you it is customary to give a little wave in acknowledgement. As we drove along this stretch we saw another vehicle about once every 15-20 minutes or so - and this is the major trunk road from North to South! The thought of breaking down is scary; no garages, habitation or help for hundreds of miles! Many people have died as a consequence of breaking down in the bush. If the heat doesn't get you the snakes and spiders will!

Cue is a near-ghost town built on the gold rush at the turn of the century when it was the centre of the Murchison Goldfields, boasting a population of around 10 000. Now all that is left is a small settlement (current population is around 300) with some of the most grandiose buildings to be seen anywhere in rural Western Australia. Although these are a little rough around the edges, they have not changed in the last 50 years. There was even an old style telegraph-cash system from the 1930's in the general store.

We set up camp at the pleasant site on the edge of town and joined a couple of fellow travellers for a sun downer. Jim & Val were a lovely couple from Queensland and had been travelling Australia for the last eight years. They supplemented their income by walking out into the bush with metal detectors collecting gold. Not small pieces but significant amounts - just lying around for anyone to find. A remarkable thought!

Most of the side roads off the main highway are generally just dirt tracks - hard compacted sand covered in corrugations, which take their toll on people and cars, hence the need for a 4WD. A 50 km side trip from Cue takes you to Walga Rock, the third largest monolith in Australia. A large cave in the rock contains Aboriginal paintings, including one believed to depict the Dutch ships that visited the region's shores in the 17th century. To think that these paintings have been continuously updated for tens of thousands of years is very humbling.

Oh, I forgot to mention the flies; these magical little beasties appear out of nowhere and drive you to distraction. 'Bee keeper' head gear is a must otherwise they are in your ears, nose eyes and the odd one is eaten. Where they come from nobody knows; they just lay in wait for some unsuspecting human. They don't seem to swarm around kangaroos or cattle - how come we humans are their preferred prey? A conspiracy to keep people from experiencing the beauty of the outback, I reckon!

If Walga Rock represented the old Western Australia, Newman is the new. In the 1960's Newman was created to exploit the iron ore in the local mountain, now it is the biggest open pit Iron Ore mine in the world. Western Australia is in the midst of an economic boom led by BHP, owners of this and other mines. Demand for Iron Ore from China is unprecedented and new mines are opening daily. This is causing a huge demand for labour - some reports say that 400,000 more people are needed in the Pilbara region. What can they expect? Good wages and working conditions in the intense heat of around 45°C (113°F) in the shade (a warm cup of tea!). The mine is huge - the 200 tonne trucks look like toys from the viewing platforms. Everything here is on a grand scale; the ore is transported by rail to Port Hedland on trains 2.5km long (250 trucks). Although this mine is huge, it is still insignificant in the scale of WA and is just a tiny pin prick on the map. How much more mineral wealth lies below the surface nobody knows!

We were in the Shire of East Pilbara, the largest shire in the world at 380,000 sq. km. It is slightly larger than Germany - and only 40,000 people live here(!), mostly in the towns. It also has some of the most stunning scenery in WA, especially in the Karijini National park, We spent a couple of days here exploring the gorges and swimming in the water holes, a welcome relief from the heat. The heat also plays havoc with your tyres. Driving along the corrugated roads in horrendous heat is not good for them, as we found out. Luckily we had just turned onto a tarmac road when an uncomfortable feeling and wobbly steering wheel ground us to a halt. One of our brand new tyres had blown out. This incident brought home the isolation and loneliness of this part of the world. We changed the tyre ok, and the couple of motorists that passed stopped to check if we needed help. Those little salutes to passing motorists does work, I thought. We spent two days here and could have spent longer. In the newly built eco-resort, there was a lovely fly-free air-conditioned bar with lots of reference books on wild life, etc. One such book caught my eye - it was entitled Snakes of Western Australia (not the whole of Australia, mind you, just one State!). This book was huge, not just a small pamphlet, but a tome the size of an encyclopedia and it was crammed with snakes - all shapes and sizes, mostly venomous. Inside this book I found two snap shots that brought it all home. Two amazing shots of monstrous pythons; one too big to crawl under a fence after it had eaten a cow (I suspect), so it tried to climb the fence using its fangs! (From the scale its jaws must have been eighteen inches wide (45 cm), length unknown.) The second python was laying on one of the ledges in the startling red gorges and was reaching down about 2m to grab a kangaroo floating in the river; the rest of its body (about 7-8 metres) was still on the ledge. If you find this hard to believe check out our photos! I have now become very wary walking alone in the bush, especially when we saw a 2 metre evil-looking black snake cross the road in front of us.

We had now covered around 1100km since leaving Perth and not a city in sight - just a few small towns. We still needed a replacement tyre and, although Tom Price at 100km was the nearest, it was in the opposite direction to our planned destination of Broome. We decided to risk the 330 km drive (without a spare) to the next town of Port Hedland, the main export port for the millions of tones of iron ore. We arrived just before lunch on a Saturday and started to look for tyre places (apparently there was three in town); one was closed and the other two couldn't help us until Wednesday! Port Hedland is not the most glamorous place and the thought of spending the best part of the week here was uninspiring. We decided we'd just driven 300km to get here, without a spare - another 600km to Broome, the next town, was well within our capabilities! This trip required an overnight stop at Eighty Mile Beach, truly 80 miles of unbroken white sand and dunes. The camp site was right on the beach and had good facilities. As a bonus the Flat Back turtles were laying. That evening I sat on the beach and watched these amazing creatures crawl out of the sea and lay their eggs in the soft sand above the tide line. An amazing experience.

Broome was a bit of a disappointment. It features in all the tourist mags as the place to go. The local government had ear-marked this town for development and had changed it from a sleepy pearl diving centre enriched by Japanese and Chinese culture to a sprawling holiday resort. The Cable Beach Caravan Park was luxurious with a lovely swimming pool which was ideal as the air temperature was in the high 30's and very humid. Distant lightning storms were heralding the start of the rainy season. Our search for tyres was still on the agenda and early next morning we called into a shop on the recommendation of the guy in Port Hedland. No luck there but they did point us to another purveyor. A great Australian trait is that they don't like to see people walk away unhappy so they always try to give you hope. "What, broken your leg? No worries mate - we'll have that fixed in no time" attitude.

So off we went to Discount Tyres. "Kiwi" the owner shook his head and, with a "no worries" attitude, gave us the benefit of his undoubtedly technical expertise - resulting in us buying two spare tyres of a different size and much higher specification. The gist of the argument being, "Up 'ere, mate, in these temperatures 3-ply tyres soften and explode! They are alright down south but up 'ere you need 10-plys at least." A fellow customer nodded in agreement; it turned out he was from the military and was kitting himself out for a trip to Brisbane with the family (a round trip of 9,000 kms). "How many spares are you taking?" I asked. "Oh, just four for the car and two for the trailer," he replied. We had planned on a journey twice this distance, so our two spares seemed quite modest in comparison. We spent an interesting morning at the tyre place, hearing about "Kiwi's" life history, his business plans and a little about the military activity in the area and most of all the importance of a good set of tyres! We left, passing on some business advice and encouragement plus a significant amount of Australian dollars. Relaxed, now we had a good set of wheels again, we continued sight seeing around Broome; this didn't take long and as we had much to do, decided to head back to Perth the next day, this time taking the coastal route. We stopped again at Eighty Mile Beach and said hello to the turtles and spent a fun evening with a bus load of young backpackers there.

We had decided to eat up some miles - our next main stop was to be Coral Bay, 1200 km away. Millstream National Park was "sort of" on the way, but it looked a useful overnight stopping place - it cut off the corner but was 200km through the bush along unsealed roads. With two spares and ten ply tyres we were full of confidence… The road passed through some lovely scenery and, except for a road crew grading (scrapping the top surface of the road), we didn't see another vehicle. We stopped for a swim in the river and buoyed by our success decided to press on and planned a stop at a road house for the night. 8pm found us at Nanutarra Roadhouse (a dump, may I add). We'd left lovely Pannawonica behind us and now were introduced to "donga" accommodation i.e. an overpriced converted 40 foot container (not the luxurious en-suite motel we had hoped for). However, we had no choice - the next stop was 230 kms further on.

Coral Bay is basically two camp sites on the Indian Ocean coast and is famous for its coral reefs accessible from the beach. It is a favourite holiday destination for the people of Perth. I wanted to check out the coral and also swim with the Manta Rays that inhabit this region. So, next morning, I had a great dive on the reef which had a huge variety of Coral but not much fish life (maybe we are starting to get too discerning as we have dived and snorkelled some lovely spots during our travels). But it was nice to get back in the water and out among the coral reefs - and it made me a bit "homesick" for our cruising life. Snorkelling with the Mantas was great - unfortunately they were a little deep, so close encounters were difficult.

It was Polling day for the Australian elections. We had been listening to all the hustings on the radio during our trip so our interest was up. Christine was keen to show me democracy in action (Australia is one of the few countries in the world that has compulsory voting)! They also have preferential voting (a sort of proportional representation, which allows the transfer of votes from lesser to preferred candidates) which can lead to huge but easy-to-follow voting forms. The poling booth at Coral Bay was a tent on the beach - but the large town of Carnarvon, our next stop, had a very picturesque poling station at a local school. In order to help voters, each party provides sample voting forms so you can either follow their advice, do your own thing - cast a "donkey" vote by defacing the ballot paper. That evening at the Carnarvon Caravan Park, there was quite a gathering around the TV as the results came in. It is very obvious that compulsory voting certainly instils interest in the democratic process - even the young people were interested in the outcome. And the result was that the 11-year Coalition Government, led by John Howard, was trounced by the Labour Party newcomer, Kevin Rudd.

3,500 million years ago up popped some dome shaped structures, stromatolites. Up to 60cm in height these are formed by single-celled organisms called cyanobacteria. These were the first life on earth and it is thought created our oxygen rich atmosphere that supports you and me. Apart from being big, Australia is also very old. The reason that why there are lots of minerals is that the whole of WA was covered in water before life began and all the metals and stuff settled out of this mineral rich soup. At Hamelin Pool there are live stromatolites and ever since I was a spotty student I'd wanted to see these remarkable beings. Most tourists pay a flying visit on their way to Monkey Mia (the biggest tourist trap in WA) - call me dull - but I was excited by these lumps of boring bits of "rock" bubbling away. When the last bus load of tourists left I doffed my hat said "thank you" and we were on our way again to Kalbari, more stunning gorges and scenery.

We were now getting close to Perth again and, as a finale, we planned to take the 75km 4WD track along the coast from Cervantes to Lancelin. We stopped at Jurien Bay campsite and bumped into Wayne and Michelle who were on holiday from England. We had met them in Coral Bay and found them lovely company. Wayne wanted to take some sunset photos through the Pinnacles, earie stone pillars in the middle of "the desert" south of Jurien Bay. We joined them and took some great photos and ended the evening at an Aussie barbecue restaurant. A lovely evening…

The next day we set off, first calling at National Park office to see if they had any directions. They kindly gave us a map of the track with directions, however as we bid farewell, we were warned that if we got stuck the only way out was by helicopter! Turning off the highway we came upon another 4WD with three Swiss lads aboard so started out in convoy. Through narrow tracks littered with rocks and boulders, over sandy hills, and past the odd abandoned vehicle we went - trying to follow the impossible instructions. We found ourselves in the middle of a sand dune field! The Swiss guys had reversed back earlier, but we decided to turn around. This took a while so we soon lost sight of our companions. After a couple of more false turns we finally found the main track. The whole journey should have taken three and a half hours however two hours had already passed and we were still less than half way. Rounding another corner we came face-to-face with the Swiss lads! They reported that the track ahead was blocked by a large sand dune… We searched for another way through but after a while decided that discretion is the better part of valour and turned around and took the "long way" round. The Swiss guys continued their search for a way through - whether they found it we'll never know!

On open road again we headed into Perth and arrived at Bill and Sue Crosse's house. Christine used to work for Bill and Sue and had remained firm friends. Their place is on the shores of the Swan River and was a fantastic place to end our trip through outback Western Australia. We rested up here and were well entertained - thank you Sue, Bill & Geoff.

One place that I wanted to visit in Perth was Rottnest Island, home of the Quokka (a small variety of kangaroo/marsupial). A pleasant cycle trip around the island and a friendly encounter with a quokka or two was a splendid way to spend a day. The next day we also managed to catch up with Joan Blakeway, Christine's friend from years ago and enjoyed a lovely stroll out on Point Walter where the fairy terns were nesting.

Finally we bade farewell to Sue, Bill and Geoff and returned to our start point at Tom and Sue's in Stoneville to get ready for our next leg of the journey. We've been away a month, driven 6,000km and have only skirted a small part of this huge continent. Well, it's only 4,000km to Sydney as-the-crow-flies - in two months? No worries, mate!