With Perth awash with bleak wintry cold, a springtime expedition to the toasty north was a welcome prospect.
Our mission: a camping trip up the West Australian coast, spending five days ratting around Shark Bay.
It’d been a few moons since I’d made it above the 26th Parallel, and the first time for trusty scion, Rhys. Father and son were rearing to go. We packed the chariot (forgetting almost everything) and set forth.
Friday morning was a prudent time to break away, with the September long weekend upon us – the Queen’s Birthday, one of the monarch’s many annual b-days in Australia. Every Mart, Bart and the kids and grey nomad would be heading north after work and bingo, so at dawn we slipped the surly confines of the metrop to evade the hordes.
With its relatively small population, Perth’s urban sprawl is already interminable – everyone living the ‘Strine home-owner dream has played a blameworthy part in its creation; hence we’ve got uninspiring, homogeneous housing developments for 6okms north and south of the CBD – kind of an unrelenting, outward urban creep, not unlike a fungal growth.
We finally broke into some remnant bush a bit south of Yanchep, that satellite town that promised so much 45 years ago, but is still just good old Yanchep. It, too, will become a domain of the fungi before long. It does have its attractions. For curious troglodytes, there’s always the limestone caves, but we’d seen the more spectacular ones in the southwest many times, and didn’t have time to disappear into the bowels of the earth, and forged onwards.
Soon we were on the relatively new Indian Ocean Drive. Quite why there hasn’t been an ‘Indian Ocean Drive’ since circa 1829, I don’t know. But Nnow the traveller can follow the unspoiled coast all the way to Dongara. The Brand Highway is the other option for a northern scoot, but this seaside route is a breeze and affords regular glimpses of the ever-changed ocean just beyond the dunes and coastal heath.
In keeping with southwest WA’s ‘Year Without a Spring’ theme, the weather was nippy and blustery with the odd rainsquall whirling in on the westerly stream. But the land and sky are always captivating on such days, scudding clouds and shadows and light, and it made for pleasant driving. We stopped occasionally to snap the brilliant white dunes, wildflowers and turquoise sea.
We passed Guilderton, favoured for its fishing and water activities at the mouth of the Moore River. It’s has become increasingly popular with the Perth weekend getaway crowd, but some families in the know have had a holiday pad there for generations.
We also skirted Seabird, a typical WA seaside hamlet, yet one falling victim to encroaching seas (climate change?) and erosion so fast that even the sea birds are trying to flog their beachside nests. One day all you will see in Seabird is sea birds, and perhaps a few property lawyers in dinghies.
Coffee at Lancelin was a proposed, then we spotted an ominous grey veil of rain coming in, so put down the hammer and forged on. We pulled into the scenic spot at the Nilgen Nature Reserve, headed up to the lookout, and snapped a few photos of the sweeping views back to Lancelin and over the coast.
Back in the Cretaceous Period, the time of my youth, we had often come up to these coastal dunes seeking uncrowded surf breaks, a carload of us fanging the ill-adapted family Morris on flattened tyres through the old RAAF bombing range. The chances of being blown to pieces driving over an unexploded 250 pounder dropped by a Wirraway in 1942, were pretty good – at least that’s what the bullet hole riddled Keep Out government signs told us. We survived, which just goes to show our bombs were about as hopeless as the Wirraway.
Our first longer pitstop was The Pinnacles Desert, the strangely otherworldly, mildly phallic karst limestone landscape. It is as if a race of beings, notable for collective erectile dysfunction, lived here in an epoch long past, fashioning stone votive appendages to worship in an effort to solidify their manhood.
Thousands of these, in all shapes and sizes, obtrude from the shifting sands and have an uncanny draw for international visitors, who today click away with digital devices, mostly in narcissistic, selfie-crazed, ‘Pinnacles and Me’ compositions.
It started to rain and the tourists scattered like battle stations ants to shelter behind their own personal pinnacles.
At the Pinnacles you pay your entry fee ($12) and you can do the walk trail or drive. The rain obviously made our choice more appealing – until the conga line of vehicles on the sand track ground to halt when the lead vehicle, a battered van of neo-Rastafarians, got bogged.
Much pushing and heaving from the crowd of disgruntled rubber-neckers astern soon got the dung-haired ones mobile again, and the SUV caravanserai moved ahead. But we’d had enough and fled WA’s most renowned sea of boondies, bound for Jurien Bay.
Many visitors in the area swing into Cervantes, another popular fishing town with nice beaches and bucolic locals, but we didn’t have time on this run and were getting a tad peckish.
I recall Jurien Bay as a child being a small, dull place with good fishing and crayfish pots. It’s much better now. Back then, it was mostly ramshackle beach sheds and the odd fisherman’s asbestos bungalow, sand-blasted by sou’westers year-round, and bathed in dazzling light and sea glare.
The local folk were principally cynical farmers with prim, coifed wives from the wheatbelt, fishermen with faces like salty plums and fingers resembling cooked chipolatas. Everyone drank Swan Lager out of big brown bottles and got around in footy shorts, singlets and thongs (many still do).
There always seemed to be people there who looked like they had escaped from a maximum-security facility and had no intention of going back.
The town banter consisted of how Moora sodbuster Jimmy ‘Spuds’ Cooken had caught a dhufish the size of a 44-gallon drum, or someone had seen a white pointer longer than the Queen Mary out at Boullanger Island, and how the state government was coming to bulldoze everyone’s illegal beach shack at nearby idyllic Sandy Cape (which, eventually, it did).
Jurien, now much larger, has followed the way of many coastal towns in WA and hitched its future and fortunes to the tourism shekel – a tenuous proposition at best unless you are an idyllic equatorial isle such as Bora Bora, where the weather is always perfect. It works well in the sunnier months, as the comfortable nomad retirees and 30-something couples with manic kids crowd the coast highways; but is pretty slim pickings in the off-season. One blowy, rain-drenched, nor’wester week in August is enough to force the average tourist biz newbie back to the teaching job in Spearwood, for good.
We grabbed a couple of passable kebabs at The Family Affair café, which it is. Then it was the 20-minute run out to Lesueur National Park to see the wildflowers and scale the table top-mountain.
This park is not one of the state’s best-known reserves, but it should be, being a picture in the spring, the bush ablaze with rare native flora. It is named after the French illustrator and botanist Charles Alexandre Lesueur, who sailed with Captain Baudin on his feted 1801 voyage of discovery to the Southland.
The flat-topped laterite mesas of Mount Lesueur and Mount Michaud are features of the park. As Baudin’s vessels tracked up the WA coast, Chuck pointed out the most obvious of the mountains and the captain named it after him.
There are several captivating walks you can take at Leseuer, but we men of resolve opted for the harder option, to tackle the mountain. The park, once part of a privately owned pastoral property, features a remarkable diversity of flora and fauna. There is an entry fee, but we had already paid the piper at the Pinnacles, so were set to explore all parks for the day.
It was a great walk. Reaching the summit, panting, we were greeted by a sea of flowers. It was rather Lost World, really; one almost expected a velociraptor to leap out of the shrubbery and tear us to shreds. There are fabulous views of the surrounding farmland and ancient eroded countryside. Wedge-tail eagles soared on up-drafts high above us, and only the wind ruffled the profound peace of the desolate heights.
But we were starting to lose the light and had to find somewhere to camp. This turned out to be the inviting and salubrious Green Head.
George Cinq, Paris, you are no match for Greenies! We pitched our lime-green three-man tent and bedded down on airbeds for the night with good books and torches, to the patter of rainfall on thin nylon. Even though the odd squall tore through the park, overturning card tables and sending tarps and towels flying inland, we were cosy, cocooned in our pop-up pup.
Up early, I brewed an execrable pot of Java in the billy – bushman style – and roused the heir, who could snooze through a tactical nuclear bombardment.
Mornings in campsites are generally sluggish and directionless. Bedraggled sleep-pinched people wander about aimlessly in mismatched clothing, grubby bare feet, sporting terrible hairdos and abominable toilette. Some of them appear to have baked beans adhering to suspect quarters. They don’t talk; they grunt, and seem to take a great deal of time making undemanding decisions, such as how to light a match.
I strolled over to the ablution block, a unique Australian centre of culture, or the paucity thereof. In the night a van had arrived and parked next door to Chateau Étoile de Mer – as our tent had become known. The vehicle was festooned with graffiti murals and mildly offensive invective.
“If you want a committed man, look in a mental asylum,” the van’s back door propounded. We never saw the goblins within, but a languid nimbus of piquant herbal smoke wafted from its direction in the midnight hour.
The shared ablution block was the usual symphony of dawn percussions, snorts, explosions, importunate groans, the hiss of showers and manic scrubbing of molars impacted with Camp Pie. There’s always a very suspect man standing in every ablution block in Australia at any given time, peering about furtively and spending too long in the end cubicle. Spotting the Greenies rep of the same ilk, I made a beeline back to camp, sans shower.
The weather was still a tad iffy: windy, clouds flying east, with a damp maritime nip in the air. Ephemeral mists of rain occasionally spritzed the dial and disposition.
It turns out 2016 was one of the coolest Septembers in years, which, unhappily, is nasty grist for the mill for the greenhouse effect deniers. “So much for climate change!” sniffed one such frigid cynic outside the site office, as we left the park in a cloud of flying mud and fumes.
We turned left out of Green Head, following the road north to Dongara. The scenery here is typically coastal Midwest – a smattering of sand dunes appearing in the rolling scrub-covered hills. The odd fisherman’s shanty (usually a corrugated iron edifice attached to a 1960s caravan with fossilized tyres) protrudes from behind a wittingly cultivated salt-resistant shrub, in the hope the Shire won’t notice. No letterboxes supplied for rates notices, of course.
The occasional glimpse of Indian Ocean breaks up the drive, with the brilliant blue broken by a white line of breakers several hundred metres out on the barrier reefs, which run up the coast for a great distance – and have been the bane of boats and ships for centuries, but are great for crayfish lovers. This coast is littered with wrecks, vessels swept onto submarine outcrops by the unrelenting winds and swell.
Our grand tour was destined to stop in Dongara on the way back, so will mention the quaint settler Pueblo later. Onwards to Geraldton.
I’d driven this route a few times in my day, but never really stopped to have a gander at Greenough – perhaps best known for its charming old settlers’ hamlet and a gruesome murder. We hadn’t had any breakfast at the campsite so decided to pull in.
It seems the poobahs of Greenough tourism have adopted the human traffic-flow schematics employed at many modern airports, whereby one is forced through a rat run of stalls, museums and eateries to get to the plane or the exit. In this case, the goal was the much-lauded colonial buildings. This is a bit of bugbear of mine, having once served a term in tourism myself. While it is incumbent on local operators to earn a crust and to maintain their special attractions via adequate income, fleecing the hapless traveller in every village is a tad irritating.
This is especially true if the price is a bit precipitous. Greenough is not Rome, Paris or Prague (which you can see for free); it is a loose cluster of well-maintained colonial buildings, and certainly has some nice attractions. Yet I’m sure the original settlers would be spinning in their fee-to-see graves at the fiduciary temerity of some acquisitive descendants.
But this is by no means just a local issue in Greenough; it is WA-wide. Perhaps if the post-war developers and town planners across this wide state hadn’t put wrecking balls through so many lovely Victorian and Edwardian buildings in the pandemonium to make everything look like suburban LA, we wouldn’t have to slap a heritage listing and fee on everything from a dilapidated barn to a crumbling jackaroo’s thunderbox.
Hence, the long lens came out for Greenough. But, on the other hand, if you like all things colonial, then it is worth the dough, so go.
Onward to the capital of the Midwest: Geraldton.
Gero is Gero: Bunbury with a suntan. You get a country town feel with a bit of sophistication poked into the metropolitan mix. The remnant 19th century architecture, welcoming unaffected locals and can-do persona are its greatest assets. It’s a town in search of a city, has very little pretence, and that’s what’s nice about it.
There has been a healthy agri-mining commercial base and busy port there for the last 130 years. It is the solid, likeable country cousin of Perth.
We missed our turn-off in search of the hip main strip, did an unavailing loop of the fishing port and harbour, nearly drove under a freight train hauling a million tons of coal, and ended up out at the red and white candy cane style lighthouse at Point Moore. Despite being completely unintended, it was a pleasant diversion to one of Gero’s best beaches.
Stripy lighthouses make a bit of fun out of marine navigation. I recall seeing the black and white one at Cape Hatteras, North Carolina, in another life and immediately thought of Gero and a trip years ago. The locals are so pleased with their light, they have erected a mini one right next to it.
Clearly driven by parochial pride, Australian town councils have a partiality for placing replicas of things of homegrown consequence (and, more often, inconsequence) in obvious places for tourists to see. They hope folk will stop for a cow, a pineapple, a banana, a peanut, a merino or a dugong – yes, a dugong.
Almost every parish has its ridiculous entry statement. Yet many of them are so silly and poorly made, they make the traveller speed through town out of fear of encountering the odd-balls who created them, only to slam into the next civic monument to the absurd further down the macadam. At least Gero’s mini light is in the centre of town, and looks cute enough next to its namesake.
We had breakfast at the Dome down at the foreshore, teeming with long weekend revellers, then set off for a brief walking excursion around town, seeing the sights.
On the previous night in the tent my makeshift pillow had been a folded sports jacket, as in the rush to get away we’d forgotten all such boudoir essentials. We’d hoped to buy a few in Jurien (two of the the locally sewn Marie Antoinette Pouf Pillow, to be exact) but the prices in the local haberdashery rivalled Rodeo Drive, so all Jurien headrests were boycotted.
Hence we needed to pick up a couple of Tontines, stopping in a boutique to ask for directions. So began the Great Gero Pillow Hunt. The term ‘country mile’ is a stark reality, and well illustrated here.
We received instructions from an ebullient by confused and underfed youth, who took about five minutes to tell us to head due East and assured us that we “can’t miss it. Only a few minutes walk thatta way.”
Many minutes later, not having come upon Target, we stopped to ask a young mother piling her tin lids into the family ute, if she knew the whereabouts of the store in question.
“I love Tarjay! You’re really close; it’s just over there.” Her tattooed hand indicated a direction pretty close to magnetic north. Rhys and I set off, harbouring a soft commiseration for Messrs Burke and Wills.
Luckily, on this trajectory, we came across to the HMAS Sydney II Memorial, a moving tribute to the sailors who lost their lives on that ill-fated Australian vessel during a sea battle with a German raider off this coast in World War II.
Visitors can learn about this important chapter in Australia’s history at the Wall of Remembrance, which bears the names of the 645 men who lost their lives. The centre piece is a stylized dome on seven pillars representing the seven states and territories of Australia.
A visit to the memorial is made even more poignant with the recent discovery of the long-lost wreck off Shark Bay. Australians come from far and wide to reflect one of the saddest tragedies in Australian wartime history.
We then continued our Target odyssey, heading interminably northward without any hint of the big red bulls-eye.
It was at this juncture we happened upon an elderly Italian-Australian gnome, out for a stroll, with the diminutive yet stout physique of RTD2 and a jovial, yet vaguely demented, demeanor. He seemed to have escaped from care somewhere.
“Targeet! Ah, Target! Taaargeet!” he whooped energetically with a heavy Sicilian accent, despite having been in Australia for 60-odd years. “Go that way, boys,” he commanded, pointing due West. “Then turn a little that way.” South.
Metres from where we had we met the positionally-challenged boy in the boutique, who will never be Vasco de Gama, we stumbled into Target and grabbed the pillows.
Yet fate is a provider: on our pillow hegira we discovered the old gaolhouse, courthouse and hospital, all excellent examples of colonial architecture, then finally got back to the car.
We headed out of town, careful not to seek further instructions as to the way to Northampton, our next destination. If we had, we might still be schlepping around downtown Gero, hapless victims of the country mile, ever-questing for the city gates.
Just south of Northhampton we pulled in at Oakabella Farm. This delightful National Trust property dates back to the 1850s and was one of the first established in the region’s fine farming country.
We can recommend the home-made scones or a meal in the tearooms – The Oakabella Country Kitchen. There’s also a guided tour of the original 13-room homestead and out buildings, including a unique two storey buttressed barn.
That night we camped at nearby Horrocks Beach, after picking up a few supplies in Northhampton. Horrocks is a great little coastal spot known for its fishing and surfing. The campground was bursting with long weekend travellers, so it was quite the social whirl for a couple of weary Argonauts.
The sun had finally come out and the day had warmed, giving us a chance to plunge in the ocean (our first since the previous autumn) and test to out our GoPro underwater camera.
It happened to be the Saturday of the AFL Grand Final and the only communal TV was in the camp kitchen. Cookery during the match proved a serious blunder, as I repeatedly passed in front of the screen, pan in hand and tea towel over shoulder. Angry harrumphs and grunts from the gathered footy devotees, cradling beers and snacks, made a seven-course degustation banquet an impossibility.
Each time I crossed the scullery, seeming to synchronize with a ‘Doggies’ goal, I was a pronounced a pariah, to put it mildly. I hurled on a couple of steaks, let them sizzle for a minute or less, then fled with same on a platter back to Chateau Étoile de Mer, and a hungry Rhys. Ho-hum, rugby was always the code of the Rigby men, anyway.
Next day we made the final push north to Shark Bay, picking up several days’ supplies in Northampton. Hamelin Station Stay, where would reside for three nights, doesn’t include food. Guests have to provide and cook their own, hence the big shop in one of the last outposts of civilization.
Stocked up we hurtled up the North West Coastal Highway. Along there way we diverted about 30kms west down the Kalbarri Road to check out the Murchison River Gorge at the Hawks Head and Ross Graham Lookouts.
The gorge is, well, gorgeous. Over the millennia, the river has cut deep into the ancient rock strata in this area, a bit like a mini Grand Canyon. Some people were heading down to the river itself, where plentiful water makes for a fairly lush micro-environment.
The rust-red gorge walls provide evidence of the rich and complex geological history of the region, laid down over many millions of years.
Then it was back to the highway. We crossed the Murchison itself at Galena Bridge, which is a great camping spot for anyone wanting to explore the gorge.
This river crossing seemed to whisper that we were now entering the vast north of the state, and indeed the terrain starts to become harsher and less habitable. The fertile farmlands of the south slip away in the rear vision mirror, the imprint of man becomes less obvious, and the vistas stretch away to distant horizons in a region of vast pastoral stations and wilderness.
During the next couple of hours we whizzed passed Eurardy Station, Nerren Nerren Reserve, the Billabong Roadhouse, and entered the World Heritage Shire of Shark Bay, arriving at the Overlander Roadhouse about lunchtime, where we grabbed a sanga and a quick look around.
We checked out the country at the back of the roadhouse, as there was something mysterious out there that we wanted to visit while in the area (more about that in the next Starfish). Already on Hamelin Station, all 220,000 hectares of it, we still had another 27kms to drive west along Shark Bay Road to the homestead and our accommodation.
The entry sign on the corner of the highway and Shark bay Road had been partially demolished a few days before by a man wildly swerving to avoid a kangaroo, but we got the gist.
Finally we rolled down the Hamelin Station Stay driveway, checked in, and were mighty glad to be in glorious Shark Bay – and normal beds.
Next stop: the weird and wonderful stromatolites at Hamelin Pool…just a country mile down the road.
The second part of our northern road trip will be in the next Starfish.
Starfish Photographs: Peter Rigby